Rauner’s schools plan raises eyebrows

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SPRINGFIELD — Proposals to tie teacher merit pay to student test scores and alter tenure policies to make it easier to fire bad teachers are among the most recent education ideas being pushed in Illinois by Bruce Rauner, the Republican businessman challenging Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn this fall.

The ideas, introduced last week as part of Rauner’s 26-page education blueprint, did not offer many details. But they raised some flags among reform campaigners and educators, who question whether the state needs to be immediately tinkering after the passage of other significant reforms in recent years and while education budgets remain tight.

Some note that teacher salaries normally are left to local school districts, while others are concerned about teacher evaluations becoming too punitive.

“Do we need additional tenure reforms in Illinois? I don’t know. We should probably see how (recently passed legislation) works,” said Jessica Handy, government affairs director for Stand for Children Illinois, a reform group that Rauner helped bring to the state. However, she added, “I’m not saying it’s too early if there’s a good policy out there and there’s political will.”

Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist, has contributed millions to school reform efforts in Illinois, including the funding of non-union charter schools and supporting merit pay for principals in Chicago. His new plan, unveiled last week, suggests tying “student academic growth to teachers’ compensation,” and he called for changing the way Illinois schools grant teacher tenure, suggesting something similar to a Florida practice providing annual contracts for teachers. Currently, state dictates that tenure can be granted after two to three years of high performance ratings on annual evaluations.

Rauner argued that Illinois has “a system in place that protects underperforming teachers at the expense of students.”

Also in the blueprint are proposals to overhaul how the state distributes money to school districts, lifting a cap on the number of charter schools in the state, looking at consolidating school-related agencies and tax credits for teachers who spend their own money on school supplies.

The Quinn campaign criticized Rauner’s approach to education overall. The governor’s running mate, former Chicago Public School’s CEO Paul Vallas, called Rauner “reckless and irresponsible” for pitching reforms that allegedly would cost the schools districts millions of dollars apiece, increase classroom sizes and raise property taxes, a claim Rauner rejects.

Vallas, who has led school districts in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Connecticut, has said in the past that traditional merit pay programs aren’t sustainable, as poor districts don’t have enough money to provide meaningful incentive pay.

In the campaign, Rauner’s teacher ideas could appeal to parents unhappy with school performance, particularly residents of moderate, voter-rich Chicago suburbs, which have seen a rash of recent teacher strikes. But the state’s major teachers’ unions pledged to work against the reforms immediately after they were released.

Some educators contend there isn’t enough detail in Rauner’s blueprint to be taken seriously when recent reforms already made changes in tenure and evaluating teachers. A 2009 law requires that various test results be used in teacher ratings, and 2011 legislation allows teacher evaluations to be used in decisions about tenure and layoffs.

“I’m just not sure how (Rauner’s plan) would even work,” said Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a New York based education reform group focused on teaching equity in high poverty schools.

A few merit pay programs already exist for teachers in Illinois, mostly in the more well-heeled Chicago suburbs. Maine Township High School teachers who earn “excellent” ratings on annual evaluations are eligible for $1,250 merit stipends, under terms of a contract approved this spring.

Chicago Public Schools announced a privately funded $5 million merit pay program in 2011, to be bankrolled by Rauner and other philanthropists. The policy was refined to only focus on principals after a deal between the city and teachers’ union following an eight-day strike in 2012.

Nationwide, hundreds of individual school districts have implemented varying degrees of teacher merit pay programs, but on a statewide level there has been “little to no activity on the issue” over the last five years, said Michelle Exstrom of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Some states can create a very general framework, but it’s mostly a district decision for how your salary schedule looks like,” said Stand for Children’s Handy, whose group supports rewarding teachers by moving them into leadership roles working on curriculum or coaching other teachers — “not just (writing) them a check because their students do well on a test.”

The non-partisan Illinois Association of School Administrators, which represents nearly 2,000 superintendents and district administrators, says it believes recent teacher reforms have gone far enough in retaining and keeping good teachers.

“We also believe the evaluation process is not there to be punitive as much as it is to improve performance,” Mike Chamness of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said.

KERRY LESTER, Associated Press

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